I winced when I saw this Columbus Dispatch headline – Call to toughen “slavery” law – but the article surprised me. In a good way.
An Ohio legislator, Teresa Fedor, is about to introduce a law that would make human trafficking a stand-alone crime and not just an adjunct to other crimes. She’s supported in this by Mark Lagon, head of the Polaris Project, for whom “trafficking” and “slavery” are apparently not just code words for cracking down on prostitution:
Lagon recommended that Ohio law be changed to make human trafficking a stand-alone crime and to include a broader definition that covers forced labor in addition to coerced sexual activity.
Now, I’m not a big fan of prostitution. I think it enshrines a type of male privilege that I’d rather see die out: the privilege to avail oneself of a fuckable body at all times. I don’t see that as advancing women’s sexual autonomy. However, I really don’t want to see sex workers be persecuted and prosecuted for making choices that are rational and not, to my mind, immoral.
Nor do I want to see trafficked domestic workers (for instance) completely ignored because there’s nothing sexy about their enslavement. (As if forced prostitution might be sexy??!!?)
Also, I hate hearing that underage girls were arrested whenever a prostitution ring is busted. A thirteen- or fifteen-year-old girl is not mature enough to consent to sex work. She really is a victim. She should be treated with kindness and helped to finish her education, not branded a law-breaking tramp.
Lagon said that Ohio needs to increase assistance, such as emergency housing, to trafficking victims, particularly juveniles.
“We don’t have a place to put these prostituted teens when we find them,” Lagon said. Too often, they are viewed as criminals to be locked up rather than victims to be helped, he added.
Of course, most sex workers are not victims. Most choose their work consciously and deliberately as the best of their available options. Many enjoy it more than most other folks enjoy flipping burgers or scrubbing other people’s toilets. Thanks to sexism and the illegality of prostitution, many prostitutes earn better money than an alternative career would offer, given their educational attainment and work experience. Also, as Audacia Ray observes on the basis of Indian sex workers’ experiences, social programs intended to “rescue” women from prostitution fail because they regard them as voiceless victims, failing to account for women’s agency and socioeconomic constraints.
For of-age sex workers, the victim/criminal dichotomy is not helpful. Many of them are neither, and we need to find new language (like, um, worker?) to describe their status. That can’t happen, though, as long as they’re still subject to criminal prosecution. So even the revised law in Ohio will fall far short of ideal – and that’s assuming 1) it passes 2) with Lagon’s preferred language. But it’s at least a start, in a state that’s usually quicker to judge than to empathize.